This is a written version of the speech I gave at Yale-NUS on 26 October 2017, at an event called ‘Occupy: The Politics of Youth & Space’.
The students turned out in large numbers. They gathered in public spaces in a demonstration of solidarity. Their representatives had gone to seek an audience with the government. And when the police came with their riot gear, they linked arms to form human chains to protect each other. There were dozens of injuries and arrests, but the students were not deterred. The movement not only carried on, but grew.
The scene I’ve just described could come from so many contexts and countries. It could, perhaps, be the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong. But it’s not.
It’s from May 13, 1954, in Singapore. The Chinese students opposed the National Service Ordinance; they objected to the idea of having to fight for the British, particularly when there was a sense that the colonial government was discriminating against them by prioritising (and funding) English-language schools above vernacular ones. Many of them had also had their education disrupted by the Japanese Occupation, and weren’t enthused by the idea of delaying their studies further. The British had to eventually postpone the implementation of conscription.
I did not learn about May 13 from my days — long, long days — in school. I learnt about it sitting in an old-school Chinese restaurant, surrounded by people in their 70s and 80s, some of whom recalled firsthand the chaos of the day the police came out swinging. It was a luncheon commemorating the 60th anniversary of this student movement — a pivotal moment for Singapore and the anti-colonial struggle that contributed to the rise of Lee Kuan Yew and the People’s Action Party.
The truth of the matter is this: the People’s Action Party could not have got to where it did back then without activism, without community organising, without mass mobilisation and widespread political engagement. It could not have got to where it did without masses of Singaporeans — whether members of the party or not — occupying space: mental and emotional space (in the way they thought about their lives under colonial rule), intellectual space (in the analyses and discussions held through their own platforms and publications, such as the University Socialist Club’s Fajar newspaper), political space (through the unions and organisations they formed to challenge the status quo) and physical space (through the sit-ins and rallies at which they gathered).
How much of that space do we have today?
Why is it important for me to talk about May 13, 1954, a time before many of our parents were even born? I bring it up because that afternoon in which I learnt about the May 13 Student Movement changed the way I thought about my country. Up until that point, I had more or less thought of activism in Singapore as something that we had to learn, a skill to pick up like fledglings learning to fly. But when I saw the vigour of the old student activists — now “old” in more ways than one — and when I saw the photographs of their sit-ins and heard the songs of their protests, I realised that activism in Singapore is not something that we have to learn.
It is something that we have to reclaim.
It might sound like semantics, but it’s actually a fundamental shift in mindset. It’s an expansion of intellectual and emotional space. It means one is no longer thinking about activism or civil resistance as something that is new, strange or foreign to Singapore. It’s no longer believing that protests and demonstrations are not part of the Singaporean DNA. It’s acknowledging that this was who we were, once. And if this is who we were, then we can be that again.
This is not a call for a march on Fort Canning Hill or a sit-in at Chung Cheng High School, as the students once did. Such an interpretation would be mistaking form for substance. The importance of knowing about the political movements of our past is not about re-enacting the protests, but about regaining the political imagination that enabled such organising among the citizenry.
I don’t know if any of you attended The Lesson by Drama Box earlier this year. The Lesson is a form of participatory theatre; in this iteration, the audience was presented with a scenario in which they had to choose one site to demolish out of a number of different sites — like a flea market, a cinema for migrant workers, a natural marshland — to make way for a new MRT station.
I attended it with a friend. We sat in the audience and watched the scene unfold. We initially went along with it, trying to weigh up the pros and cons before making a choice. Then we thought, “Hang on. There’s something wrong with this process. Why should we choose? Were the citizens told about the demolition before they voted for the MRT station? Why are things being done this way?”
We tried to speak up; we tried to start a protest; we declared that we would be boycotting the vote. We tried to disrupt the process, to draw attention to systemic flaws, but were told to sit down because we were eating into the time in which the organisers had allocated for people to come to a decision. We did get a small group of participants to join us in our boycott, but also had other audience members tell us off for “not following ‘the lesson’”.
I messaged one of the theatre practitioners from Drama Box later that night. He told me that they had presented a similar piece at a festival in Rotterdam. That ‘lesson’ had gone in a completely different direction; the participants in Rotterdam, objecting to the process of being forced to sacrifice a site of great community value, chose to physically barricade all the sites in a stand against the authorities’ desire to tear a place down.
This scenario would have been unlikely to happen in Singapore, where our feeble disagreement was quickly shut down because it was “wasting time”. It’s not because Singaporeans are too cowardly, or too stupid — it was that such an act would never have occurred to us in the first place.
For something to be realised, it first has to be imagined.
Singaporeans today don’t protest or organise just because we’re afraid; we often don’t protest or organise — or even take part in any political process beyond voting once every five years — because we can no longer imagine ourselves doing anything of the sort.
And that is why, when we talk about space, we have to talk about space wherever we can get it. That means more than physical space, but emotional, mental, intellectual space too. Having physical space is not enough if we don’t have the clarity of vision — a clarity that can only come from self-reflection, self-awareness and open discourse — to figure out what to do with it. Occupying physical space makes us visible, which is important, but it doesn’t necessarily make us effective.
The other benefit of talking about space, wherever we can get it, is that it’s something we can do right here, right now. You don’t need to be in an outdoor courtyard to educate yourself about Singapore’s history, or about politics or civil movements around the world. You don’t need a big venue or a loudhailer to start questioning the assumptions you might never even have realised were assumptions, rather than truth. You don’t need thousands of people congregating in a square to talk about due process or the values that you want to fight for in your lifetime.
For something to be realised, it first has to be imagined. For something to be accepted, it first has to be normalised. Change is difficult, and new things — even if they aren’t actually new — can be frightening. Shifts in mindset can be like picking up a new prescription for your glasses: at first, things seem distorted, even disorienting. But after some time you no longer remember seeing things any other way.
This is how political engagement and activism were bred out of us in the first place, and this is how we are going to bring it back. For each space from which politics and participation have been stripped, we can paint it back in. Talk about current affairs to your friends over dinner. Listen to a history podcast on the bus. Gift a relative with a book on advocacy in Singapore for Christmas. Share a documentary about Operation Spectrum on Facebook. Teach yourself to acknowledge your fears, and to think them through. Recognise your own privileges, and try harder at empathy for others.
Space has long been a problem in Singapore, whether it’s because of politics, or because everything is so damn expensive. And one day — a day which, ideally, should have been yesterday — we Singaporeans will have to reclaim physical space for democratic and collective action. But we need to remember that some spaces already don’t need permits.
Some spaces don’t need money. Some spaces dwell in hearts and minds.
There is not enough space in Singapore. But not all restrictions on space come from the government or an institution. Some restrictions come from ourselves. And in our struggle to reclaim space, it makes sense to start by dismantling the self-imposed hurdles.
After all, we all need space, wherever we can get it.
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Related: May 13 and Singapore Today